Egypt’s Camus?

Egyptian-born writer, Albert Cossery, spent most of his adult life in Paris, where he died in 2008, after publishing eight novels in French. Like Teymour, the main character in A Splendid Conspiracy, Cossery left Egypt for France in order to acquire a university education, but never completed the degree. He considered the idle life one of reflection and meditation and associated in Europe with Albert Camus, Jean Genet, Lawrence Durrell and others. His novels are only now beginning to appear in English and, if Alyson Waters’ vibrant translation of A Splendid Conspiracy is any indication of Cossery’s other works, the wait has been well worth it.

The conspiracy in question is more comic than tragic—at least by the end of the narrative. In an unnamed minor city in Egypt, a number of important men have recently disappeared, all of them rich. The local police chief believes that there’s a conspiracy going on which will shortly evolve into outright terrorism. He’s got his eye on several young men, including Teymour, who he believes are intellectuals with plans to overthrow the state. What he doesn’t know is that Teymour–who recently returned to Egypt after six years abroad–did not earn a university degree because he was more interested in seducing young women than working hard to master a subject. Just before he returned home, Teymour paid a small fortune for a fake university diploma in chemical engineering. Hillali, the chief of police, suspects that Teymour—with his knowledge of chemistry—may be working with others to make explosives.

But Teymour and his several friends, including one much older man, spend their nights drinking and seeking out girls whom they seduce, often planning elaborate pranks on one another. Chawki, the oldest among them, is obsessed with sleeping with an innocent young school girl, rather than the loose women he has associated with in the past. Teymour and his friends plan to pay a prostitute to dress up in a school girl’s outfit and cover her hands with ink from the pens she has presumably used in her studies. When Hillali gets wind of the plan—though only partial information about it—he concludes that a schoolgirl’s smock may be part of a plan to conceal a bomb.

Rezek, one of Hillali’s informants who spends almost all of his time watching Teymour and his pals, tries to convince the police chief that the purchase of the smock has no ominous significance: “No doubt they are preparing some prank. I know them; they spend their time having fun.” Hillali responds, “You are mistaken. They pretend to be having fun, but it’s a trick. In reality they are plotting against the government. Otherwise, why wouldn’t they be working?” Rezek replies, “Maybe they find life more pleasant when they do nothing. It’s a new philosophy. They’ve decided to put it into practice.” But Hillali—who sees conspiracies all around him—can’t see otherwise. “These young men are educated.”

Hillali’s distrust of young men and women is emblematic of their regard in many countries, especially if they have university degrees, though the fact is that the police chief would be equally offended—perhaps even outraged—if he understood the extent of the sexuality and the alcoholic consumption that would also be a threat to his conservative values. Cossery is wicked in his satire, though as a man of the world he understood that young people around the world have often paid with their lives for the kind of activities his characters engage in.

The comic scenes in the novel are delicious. There’s another young man who pals around with Teymour and his friends who was a successful actor until his sudden near-sightedness led him to embrace a young man in a recent production instead of the young woman he should have grabbed at the climax of the play. The author’s resolution of the disappearance of the men–used at the beginning of his story to set up the entire conspiracy hypothesis—is equally entertaining and surprising.

I had never heard of Albert Cossery until the copy of A Splendid Conspiracy arrived in the mail. What a pleasure to realize that there’s such an important writer whose works are finally being translated into English.

A Splendid Conspiracy
By Albert Cossery
Translated by Alyson Waters
New Directions, 216 pp., $14.95

CHARLES R. LARSON is Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C.

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = Twitter @LarsonChuck.